3 February 2019

The Mortsafe: Or How to Protect Your Loved Ones from the Bodysnatchers

Medical students in the United Kingdom of the nineteenth century faced a quandary. They had been accustomed to using the corpses of executed criminals to study anatomy.

The use of the corpses of the convicted to discover the secrets of human anatomy dates back to the 4th century BC, when Herophilos and Erasistratus  of Alexandria were given permission to perform live vivisections.  The times, however, had changed and criminals were now only dissected after execution.  Yet there was a problem..

More lenient punishment for wrongdoings had meant that only around 50 people a year were now being executed. However, the annual demand for bodies to dissect by the growing medical profession surpassed ten times that number. A thriving and historically infamous bodysnatching trade arose. However, those mourning the loss of a loved one soon developed a weapon against this: the mortsafe.

The first mortsafe was made around 1816.  They came in a number of different designs but the one thing that they had in common was their weight, which would make exhumation of the recently deceased impossible.

The mortsafe was ingenious: a complex of iron rods and plates descending in to the ground and rising above it.

Above the ground they were weighted either with stone or iron.

So what lies beneath? After the grave was dug and the coffin placed in it a plate was placed on top of it.  The plate had holes along its sides and iron rods were slid through these. Then another plate (either stone or iron) was placed atop.  The coffin was effectively caged, its contents double-sealed, the dead left to molder peacefully.

If this seems like a great length to go to, there was good reason. Grave robbers were crafty and would go to even greater lengths to retrieve a corpse from its coffin.  It wasn’t, as you might imagine, a straightforward case of sneaking in to the graveyard and digging the deceased up at the dead of night (besides, many graveyards had watchtowers to spot any potential miscreants).  One popular method was to dig a manhole about twenty feet away from the grave. 

A tunnel would then be dug from the hole to the coffin, the end of the casket would be dragged off and the body removed horizontally.  No one would notice that the grave had been disturbed because to all intents and purposes it hadn’t been - from its appearance above ground at least.  Many empty coffins have been discovered in the twentieth century showing this form of intrusion.

There are not many extant mortsafes for one reason: not that many were needed.  They were re-usable. Two people held the different keys needed to unlock the mortsafe and remove it to ensure that neither could release it without the other. After a period of five to six weeks the body inside the coffin would be so badly decomposed as to be no use whatsoever to any anatomist.  The mortsafe could then be moved to the next fresh grave – providing of course that the family of the deceased were willing to pay the charge.

And they were.  Churches would buy the mortsafes and then effectively rent them out to the mourning.  To avoid the often exorbitant fees that unscrupulous churchmen would levy, societies were formed to buy them.  The membership of these societies would then be able to have use of a mortsafe when necessary for a minimal price.  Non-members could also use a society’s mortsafes but that, of course, would come at a price.  If there was one thing the Victorians knew was how to pull a profit whenever the opportunity arose.

Yet the age of the mortsafe came and went within a couple of decades.  The government of the day passed the Anatomy Act of 1832.  This allowed for any unclaimed bodies (or indeed those donated or willed both pre or post-mortem) to be used in the pursuit of anatomic knowledge.  This effectively ended the trade in body snatching.  Most mortsafes were recycled or put to other uses, such as the bench and a bush above. The buried dead were at last left in peace and the mortsafe had outlived its use. Some still remain above the grave where they had last been placed, a curious reminder of the golden age of British grave robbing.

First Image Credt Flickr User John Dahl